1 Daphne Habibis Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
White people have no face: Aboriginal perspectives on White culture and the costs of
Daphne Habibis,a,b, 1 Penny Skye Taylora, c and Bruna S. Rugainia, d
a School of Social Sciences, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia
Orcid: b 0000-0001-5491-2089; c 0000-0001-7648-314X; d 0000-0002-3603-2544
Citation: Daphne Habibis, Penny Skye Taylor & Bruna S. Ragaini (2020) White people have no face: Aboriginal
perspectives on White culture and the costs of neoliberalism, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 43:7, 1149-
1168, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2019.1642504
Australia has a significant Aboriginal population but while much is known about how White people view
Aboriginal culture ,Aboriginal perspectives on White culture are not well known. Drawing on survey (N=474)
and in-depth interviews (N=43) we aim to reposition the normativity of White culture by asking a diverse group
of Aboriginal people what they think of White Australian values and behaviours. Regardless of social position,
as a subaltern population, respondents have a heightened sense of the alienation inherent within contemporary
neoliberalism. Most respondents believe people live in ways that go ‘against nature’, at high cost to the social
fabric and environment. The contrast with the respondents’ own sense of connection provides an opportunity
to reset the race relationship by re-evaluating the hegemonic assumptions within the reconciliation dyad. The
findings disrupt the identities of both parties and position Aboriginal people as both deserving of inclusion and
as proferring knowledge of benefit to all Australians.
ARTICLE HISTORY Received xxxxx; Accepted xxxxx
Alienation, Indigenous, race relations, reconciliation, values, Whiteness.
This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [Grant number LP130100622].
Introduction: Reversing the gaze
Di is laughing, as she describes the irrationality of White
... they go against nature. They go and swim with the crocs or they surf with the sharks.
Then they complain that they get bitten. That's fuckin' stupid. It's crazy. And then they
want to kill those beautiful...
Di pauses. When she speaks again her tone has changed to one of anger and hurt.
What are we going to do? Are we going to start killing everything that bites us? Are we
going to start wiping out every animal because we're going into their territory? The earth
is so upset now, the balance is so upset now that of course we're going to have snakes and
spiders where they never used to be. We're the ones that have destroyed all their habitat.
The crocs are starving, the fish are being gutted from the sea. Everything is just so wonky
As one of the Darwin region's traditional owners, Di is subject to, but stands apart from,
White social, cultural and economic domination. She is not alone in her acute sense of the
problems of White culture, and the absurdities that accompany it. Our research on Aboriginal
perspectives on White culture and White values found her concerns were shared in varying
degrees by all respondents.
This paper reports on an ARC study whose aims include disrupting the normativity of White
epistemic values by reversing the gaze of White people on Aboriginal people (Habibis et al
2016; Moreton-Robinson 2004). It asks Aboriginal people how they understand and
experience White culture and White values in order to open a space for alternative values
and cultural perspectives. We argue that, as a subaltern population (Spivak 1988), the
respondents have a unique view of contemporary neoliberalism. They are a structurally
excluded, racialised minority (SCRGSP 2014), yet through biology and colonization share
White Australia's history and culture. Critical race theorists argue such liminal locations afford
opportunities to challenge master narratives and help realign perceptions of who both
Aboriginal and White people are (Moreton-Robinson 2007).
Decolonisation and reversing the gaze
In the last decade, reconciliation has become one of the main prisms in Australia to
facilitate Aboriginal social inclusion. Yet although Aboriginal peoples are central to Australia's
national identity, they are largely silenced in public discourse due to the dominance of non-
Aboriginal narratives in all aspects of national life (Rowse 2007). This denies their reality as
subjects possessing their own views and opinions, and obstructs their opportunity to
challenge dominant discourses about who they are. It influences the way both groups
understand their place within Australia, and reinforces the uneven relationship. Fraser
argues reconciliation can only advance if the identities of both subordinate and dominant
groups are disrupted so they develop new forms of mutual recognition and understanding
(Fraser 2000). This requires repositioning the normativity of White values, priorities, and
lifestyles so that the dominant culture comes to understand the relative nature of its own
cultural attachments (Moreton Robinson and Walter 2009; Hage 1998).
Critical race theory argues that disrupting the hegemony of White culture requires focusing
on Whiteness and its characteristics. White culture refers to Australia's dominant values,
beliefs and normalised behaviours whose roots lie in Anglo-Celtic traditions but which include
elements derived from historically later migrations from Western Europe. Central to the idea
of Whiteness is the assumption that its standards are those against which all other values and
behaviours should be judged. This assumed universality renders White values invisible
because while they dictate and define the ordinary, the moral and the common sense, they
are rarely perceived to do this (Moreton-Robinson 2004, Green and Sonn 2005). This ‘White
enculturation’, ensures White dominance is simultaneously ubiquitous and denied (Green
and Sonn 2005:480). Exposing how aspects of White culture are perceived by those subject
to its hegemony but who are located on the periphery, helps shift self-perceptions of the
dominant group in ways that may advance the relationship (Said 1978, Kowal 2015).
Despite the seminal contributions of scholars such as Du Bois (1920) and bell hooks (1992),
there appears to be little systematic investigation of how subaltern populations understand
and experience dominant cultures. This is especially true of Indigenous populations where
research categorises them as either 'at risk' peoples or 'asterisk peoples', where an asterisk
represents an absence of data, thereby subsuming Aboriginal perspectives within larger
ethnic categories (Tuck and Yang 2012: 23). In Australia, national surveys on the Australian
public’s values, priorities and attitudes, for example, the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes
(Wilson and Hadler 2018) provide little opportunity for analysis of Aboriginal views, since the
small proportion (3.3%) of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population rarely permits
sub-group analysis. The few studies that focus specifically on Aboriginal peoples are
principally concerned with 'at risk' indicators relating to health, education and employment
(DSS 2015). While there is significant research on racism there is limited Australian research
on everyday Aboriginal experiences (Paradies and Cunningham 2012). The Reconciliation
Barometer provides some insights into Aboriginal and 'general community' perspectives on
reconciliation, but none on Aboriginal experiences of living in Australian society or their views
on mainstream Australian values (Reconciliation Australia 2016). Qualitative studies focus on
the views of the settler Australian majority (Kowal 2015; Elder, Ellis and Pratt 2004). This
silencing reinforces negative stereotypes and is a missed opportunity for White Australians to
benefit from Aboriginal knowledge.
The project was strongly informed by the need to employ methods respectful of
Aboriginal knowledge, concerns and agendas, especially the emphasis on relational rather
than transactional relationships (Smith 2015). It was initiated by Larrakia Nation Aboriginal
Corporation (LNAC) where author Taylor was Head Researcher at the time. To ensure
relational validity, regular communication was maintained with LNAC at every phase of the
research. Interviews were held up to six times with each respondent to establish confidence
and connection and ensure respondents could develop discussion points, steer contributions
and discuss topics with family and friends. Most interviews were conducted by an Aboriginal
and a White interviewer. The Aboriginal researchers brought their cultural knowledge to the
engagement and ensured questions were framed by Aboriginal world views. In recognition
of Aboriginal gender norms, interviewer gender was matched to those of respondents.
Interview instruments included photographs and images to facilitate discussion beyond
verbal cues. The interview findings were discussed with members of the research team
(Aboriginal and White) in a two-day workshop to ensure accurate reflection of respondent
Table 1: Survey sample characteristics (N=474)
Other (includes homeless)
Labour market status
Other (includes homemakers and students)
No post school qualifications
The research comprised a two-phase, mixed-methods approach, involving interviews
(phase 1) and survey (phase 2) of Aboriginal residents of Darwin. To ensure inclusion of a
diversity of Aboriginal people both phases used the 2011 Census for Greater Darwin to create
a sampling frame that matched respondents to the socio-demographic profile of Greater
Darwin's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population (see Table 1 below)
. Phase 1
comprised in-depth interviews with 43 respondents in 2015 who met criteria of identifying
as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, living or visiting Darwin and aged at least eighteen
years. They were drawn from all adult age and income groups, including home owners and
homeless, professionals, political activists, carers, artists, pensioners, members of the stolen
generation, long-term Darwin residents and visitors from remote communities.
The interview findings were used to develop the instrument for the phase 2 survey of 474
Aboriginal people living in the Greater Darwin area. This was administered face-to-face by a
team comprising a majority of Aboriginal interviewers. Respondents who only partially
completed the survey were removed, leaving a final sample size of 474. As with the interview
sample, respondents were highly diverse (see Table 1). Analysis of survey data was
conducted using Stata SE 15.0 (StataCorp, TX, USA) with P values of less than 0.05 considered
statistically significant. Chi-square and Fisher’s Exact tests (when cell sizes were ≤ 5)
examined demographic differences in level of agreement with views on White values.
The survey data presented here focuses on perceptions of how the values of White people
compare with those of Aboriginal people (see Table 2). The interview data focuses on how
respondents understand White behaviour and values. The focus on White rather than
Aboriginal culture reflects the priorities of the research partner and those of the
respondents. It also stems from the politics of location, as all the members of this author
team are White and are concerned to minimise the extent to which they speak for Aboriginal
and other racialised minorities (bell hooks 2000, Moreton-Robinson 2004).
The Darwin context
Darwin is Australia's most northern capital city and has the largest proportion of Aboriginal
people of any jurisdiction (8.7%). It is located in the continent's driest jurisdiction, and is
Australia's smallest capital city, with a population of 145,91 (ABS 2016). The city's Aboriginal
population includes a relatively stable Aboriginal population as well as regular visitors from
remote communities (Habibis et al 2011). Darwin is highly multicultural due to its proximity
Aboriginal people in Darwin have been substantially affected by colonisation and its
aftermath, with practices such as the forced removal of children within living memory of some
respondents. Colonisation and the trauma of displacement from country has left a legacy of
physical and mental illness and disability, homelessness, incarceration and low levels of
education and employment participation (Productivity Commission 2014). Despite a recent
Northern Territory Royal Commission into the protection and detention of children, all
children in detention in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal, (NT Parliament 2018:62) and
the rate of out-of-home care for Aboriginal children is almost ten times the rate of the non-
Aboriginal population (AIFS 2019). Numerous studies have pointed to a legacy of distrust of
White institutions amongst Aboriginal people in Darwin (Altman and Hingston 2007; Penman
Talking about Whiteness is hard
This context is one of the reasons why respondents were keen to put their perspective on
White culture, but also found the topic difficult, with frequent use of phrases such as 'I don't
know' and 'it's hard to explain'. For some, especially the most marginalised, Whiteness is
associated with painful experiences and not something to dwell on. For others, there was
an awareness of White fragility and the potential for White backlash (DiAngelo 2018).
Aboriginal ethics also discourage judgement of those who are not your own (reflected in
phrases such as 'I don't know them so I can't speak about them'), while some respondents
had White relatives that created sensitivities. Many respondents were cautious about
stereotyping White culture because of their awareness of its diversity.
Our research set out to show the diversity of views amongst the Aboriginal population,
but the results show that - when it comes to views on White culture - there is a remarkable
consensus. Although there are differences between more and less advantaged respondents,
these are small in comparison to the level of agreement. This is apparent from the survey
responses which reveal socio-demographic variables account for few significant differences.
The survey: Demographic diversity but a consensus on White values
The survey questions on White values tested the phase 1 (interviews) finding that
respondents saw White culture as corrosive of human connection. Respondents were asked
for their views on four statements, which began 'In White culture'... with responses measured
using a four-level Likert scale. Table 2 reveals a very high level of agreement with all four
questions ranging from 86.9 percent (statement 2) and 91.6 per cent (statement 3).
Table 2: Survey respondents' views on White values (n=474)
In White culture…
Statement 1: People’s feelings are less
important than getting the job done.
Statement 2: Being at work is more important
than being with family.
Statement 3: People feel good about
themselves because they own things rather
than who they are as a person.
Statement 4: People are prepared to have a
more stressful life, so they can have lots of
Tests of significance (Chi-square and Fisher’s Exact tests when cell sizes were ≤ 5.), show
few within-group differences, despite the socio-demographic diversity of the sample (Table
3). Only two statements generated statistically significant differences and these were for
only two variables: education (statement 4) and labour-market status (statement 2), and
these applied in relation to only one statement. While socio-economic status may account
for some sample differences there were no statistically significant differences for education,
which is an indicator of socio-economic status. Overall, within-group differences were
Table 3: Demographic factors associated* with ‘strongly agreeing’ or ‘agreeing’ with
statements about White values (n=474)
In White culture… % strongly agree/agree
getting the job
have a more
Housing tenure, p
Labour market status,
* Includes home-makers and students
This result is highly unusual for such a diverse sample and reveals strong agreement about
the problematic nature of White, neoliberal values of individualism, hyper-consumption,
instrumental relationships and a willingness to sacrifice personal wellbeing and family in
pursuit of material success.
The next section analyses the interview data to explore qualitatively how the respondents
understand and experience White cultural values. These understandings largely focus on the
problems that arise from a culture in which human values of connection have become
Separation from self: The inauthenticity of White culture
When Di talks about White culture being 'against nature' she is not only talking about the
environment. Here she is again, this time talking about how 'the English way' is one in which
emotion is repressed. She says:
We have a saying 'White people have no face', you can't tell their line. I mean, I can't tell if
they're crying, they're sad, they're jealous, they're angry, they're moody. You can't read
them. So we can't interact and relate. We can't connect with them because they put this
stiff upper lip composure, 'Don't be emotional'. It's against nature. It's not natural'.
For Di, White culture results in a denial of emotion that detaches people from their
authentic selves. She observes the performative nature of White relationships and the
instrumental values underpinning this. People are measured by their achievements rather
than by who they are. For other respondents this disconnection was implicit in their
comparisons between the 'balanda'
concern with appearance and Aboriginal people's more
casual dress-style. White people dress to impress, whereas for Aboriginal people what
matters is who you are that matters, not how you look. Jo, a professional woman, observes:
White people tend to dress like, you know, they tend to worry about material things, so
they tend to follow the trends, whereas us people just wear things that are comfy...You
know, I just wear this shirt (it's not) fussy. I don't dress to impress.
Later, Jo discusses the contrast between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relationships:
I worked in an admin area full of Aboriginal people and you know, they're the same inside that
workplace (as they are) outside. And that's how you build relationships. You don't wear two
different hats. Because I would joke with that manager outside of work, and then I'll go into work
and I'll try and joke with her there, and she...I can't even have a conversation with her.
From Jo's perspective, her non-Aboriginal colleague's behaviour shows a lack of sincerity
as impression management is prioritised over social relationality. She observes how White
competitiveness results in instrumentalism and inauthenticity and contrasts this with the
relational orientation central to Aboriginal culture (Burbank 2006; Moreton-Robinson 2017).
Dollar dreaming: commodity fetishism
Most respondents had an ambiguous attitude towards material wealth. While a good
home and 'nice clothes' are appreciated, this co-exists with concern at the way love of money
is like a religion within white culture:
Di: We say White fellas have dollar dreaming... to White fellas the dollar is sacred...
That’s their way of life, their dreaming, their culture.
Bob: All they think about is money, money, money,
Mark: Their God is money and I’m afraid they worship the material world.
Geena: Whereas with the White mob, I always notice they think about, not all of them but
a lot, always think about money. "(If) we do this - guess how much money we’re
going to make? (If) we do that - think about the money you’re going to get". Me, I
don’t care about the money but especially like this, "working on the weekend you
get double time and time and a half" and everything like that. I don’t care about that
I’d rather be with my boy, with my family, just chilling. I don’t care about the money.
Perceptions about the problems caused by the drive for material accumulation are
associated with some disapproval of the pressure to achieve prestigious, economically
Callum: Consumerism, materialism, building up assets, building up wealth, climbing the
ladder of opportunity.
Mark: Their value systems, their lifestyles, even their education systems - everything is
geared towards status... They have a pyramid structure of how they operate, so
there’s always someone with a higher pay.
Claire: They're career orientated, like they want the top jobs and they want big paid jobs.
Because they're better than everybody else and they’re really career driven, money
driven and it’s all about the material.
Some respondents see the drive for material success as a good thing, but most believe it
distorts human values. Because everything is reduced to the cash nexus, the accumulation
of goods takes priority over sociality:
Max: But I don't just understand why White people buy their homes, renovate it, get
expensive stuff and then they're old all of a sudden, you know?
Clara: My stereotype of a White person is yeah, city, concrete, restaurants, just stuff that
just does not matter.
Separation from others: selfish, lonely and stressed
Dollar dreaming is linked to perceptions of competitiveness, individualism and
selfishness. Many respondents appreciate the value of discipline and hard work but
observe how these tend to be linked with selfishness. While few directly describe White
people as selfish, respondents often describe the harms that result from the
individualistic and hierarchical nature of White relationships. Mark explains how this
Through our education system you're rewarded for being the highest achiever and that creates
psychopathic, megalomaniac, narcissistic people. It’s all about the individual. Well, you can be an
individual within our group and that’s fine, but you have that understanding of responsibility for
one another. Whereas in the Western context, the individual is ’I look out for myself', 'I get what I
want', 'I’ll be right mate’, They’ve lost the plot, they’ve lost their connection.
Disconnection results in a lack of empathy, intolerance and judgementalism. Claire, an
older professional woman, describes an incident in which an Aboriginal man in a wheelchair
asked for help to get to the nearby Centrelink
office but all the non-Aboriginal people ignored
him, leaving her to intervene. In her view this disregard of human need shows that non-
Aboriginal people 'want to look at themselves':
He only just wanted someone to push his wheelchair to Centrelink because he didn’t
enough ID to get his pay out of his bank. This really saddens me, you know? Everyone just
walked straight past him and I thought, 'Shit. You know he’s not
going to put germs on us. It’s like he had Ebola or something.
Competitiveness and individualism create arrogance and superior attitudes. People
'think they're better than others' and 'look down on people'. As Bob put it:
When you’re filthy rich you can do anything... They're not thinking about the land or people,
they're thinking about themselves.
Numerous respondents contrasted the selfishness of White culture with Aboriginal values
of tolerance, inclusion and sharing. Clara is homeless but explains how she would give a
dollar to someone who needs it. Jo explains how she doesn't look down on those less
successful 'like they're dirt' but instead thinks ' we’re all fighting demons but at different
Many respondents observe how the selfishness and arrogance that come with dollar
dreaming leads to separation from others.
James: I look at the big picture and I just say we’re living in a fish bowl in a sense that all of
us have got to live on this planet. What’s our purpose you know? Do you try and make as
much money as you can and then die or is it to have a spiritual journey within that and to
actually have a harmonious, peaceful, loving family and community you know?
Dollar dreaming also disconnects people from family because they are too busy
working to pay sufficient attention to kin:
Katie: Because some of them, they don't care about their family, you know.
Holly: There is overwork, not being there for the kids. Some people think they can
compensate for it by paying others to do different roles and a lot of rich families find
themselves in trouble, you know, like lost kids because their parents are never there.
There are a lot of tensions there. Individuals choose what they value and it gets back
to that authenticity stuff as well.
Claire: They lose their family because I’m sure some of them don’t have time for their
children at home. I think to myself, 'Why did you bring them in the world?'
Although non-Aboriginal people are perceived to be happy 'in a way' (Bob), many
respondents believe the obsession with money results in loneliness and stress. Fred
reflects on their 'sad life', as consumption is traded for connection:
Fred: It’s a good thing, because they work for their money. But I find them to be sad and
alone and not to have any friends, because whatever they work for, it’s their things.
Whereas for us, whatever we work for, we like to share and make everyone around us
Interviewer: When you say these people are sad, what are they sad about?
Fred: When you talk to friends and stuff down south, they’re always talking about money
and stuff and like to do things with their money, but I just see them sad and alone.
Dollar dreaming also leads to stress.
Geena: Everyone stresses over bills (but) White people stress to the point where they
(need) medications to calm themselves down ... The non-Aboriginal freak out to the point
where they are going red or grey.
In a separate interview, Geena remarks:
It's like they forget the value of love to anything, love to your family, love to your friends,
love to your plants. Like they're forever stressing, 'I've got to buy this, I've got to buy that,
I've got to pay for this, I've got to do this, I've got to go to work so I can pay to this, I've got
to go to work so I can do this and that', and they just don't see the true value of love when
Rather than using wealth to invest in relationships, accumulating wealth becomes an end
in itself. People are judged by their financial worth rather than their personal qualities and
contribution to community.
They go against nature
Insights about the instrumental approach to relationships that pervade White culture
extend to concerns about the exploitation of nature. Respondents talked about this in
relation to three areas: wasteful and exploitative attitudes towards hunting, the exploitation
of land for commercial gain and a materialist understanding of the relationship between
humanity and land.
Respondents frequently remarked on the way White people waste produce, taking more
than what they need when hunting and using it to make money. They see this as part of a
broader form of disrespect towards country, which is treated as if it exists solely for their
Mark: I’m going to chuck a (fishing) line out for a feed or share it (the catch) or do those
things but it’s to get a feed and that’s it, not fill up a whole boat ... He (non-Aboriginal
person) filled up his whole five-metre dinghy with barramundi and what for? You
know, it’s to sell it of course. There was too much. He didn’t drop any off to the local
mob. You know it was to get as much as he can and take off.
Joan: It really, really irks me, when mainstream Australia think 'I’ve got a four wheel drive
I want to go bush bashing'... It’s a sense of entitlement. 'I have the car, I’m out for
adventure, I want to do this and that'.
Distaste for exploitative attitudes to the land were most acute when discussing the
exploitation of resources and relentless development:
Sean: Aboriginal people have been saying to White people since colonialism
days that you've got to take care of the land like we have been doing, otherwise you will
damage it and irreparably damage our existence.
Yvonne: But balanda doing it the wrong way and destroying this country.
Cassie: The government says that every mineral that’s underneath the earth...belongs to
them. Who said that? You don’t own that. This earth owns it, not you. Our good old
mama there. How did you mob come up with that? Your greed is destroying our earth,
our mother. Good luck to us mob if we've got planet B somewhere.
Commercially driven development destroys both nature and people, damaging long-
standing connections and practices.
Holly: One of the biggest issues at the moment is a lot of the local communities feel like
Darwin is getting too big now. The mainstream has this idea of developing Darwin and
all the stuff that comes with that, whereas the local families - long-term local families
and the Aboriginal population - that’s not so much our view of how we want Darwin
Cassie: Their greed of land and want of minerals and stuff like that. Development, always
worrying about development and knocking down all the natural habitat, rather than
us mob, kids enjoying it, like our kids, everybody kids, every people...
Unsustainable land practices were routinely compared with Aboriginal values of
sustainability and connection:
Geena: One thing that I would have to say in land care is that White Australia could learn a
lot from the Aboriginal mob if they really wanted to. Instead of just clearing everything
away and building cement buildings or whatever - high-rises. To preserve the land, I
reckon they could learn a lot from Aboriginal people.
Mark: Everything is connected, I mean whether you look on it from a scientific point of
view. Water, you know we live in a fishbowl, so it’s obvious that we breathe the same
air, we drink the same water, we eat the same food, but everything comes from
Mother Earth. When you look at the greedy side of Western culture where they want
to extract minerals to make products to be able to sell to people - where does that go?
That’s a destructive process whereas Aboriginal people want to live with nature.
Daniel summarises the difference in attitudes towards nature:
Whereas they want to own a certain part of land, for (us) it's the other way around. Even
White people who live out bush - they have acres of land just fenced around and that’s
their's, specifically for their own purposes...We call it land or we call it country, they call it
property or a block.
The denial of Aboriginal ontologies of the inalienable spiritual connection to land was
a source of anger and confusion. Di is emotional when she thinks about the 'English
way' of domination and control:
I don't know where it comes from, that culture - like, climb every mountain, swim every sea,
dominate, conquer, invade, take over. Where does it come from? ... I mean if someone
could enlighten me and show me another race that has been destroying the earth like that.
I don't know. Can you? ... Where we used to look after the land, they come and destroy the
Disconnected from one another and from nature, White people threaten the
existence of life itself. They have lost the capacity for harmonious co-existence that was
intrinsic to Aboriginal lifeworlds where an inalienable spiritual connection to country
came with a responsibility to serve as its custodians.
Discussion: Critiquing modernity
The respondents are variously imbricated in the workings of Whiteness. For some, their
engagement is limited to instrumental interactions while others are deeply engaged as
employees in White organisations, and through their relationships with White relatives. But
all are subject to the hegemonic power of Whiteness, through institutions such as education,
the media and government agencies. Despite this, the research reveals a consistent pattern
of resistance to dominant 'cultural, material and social imperatives' (Dimitriades 2011:649).
The issue is not that respondents don't appreciate material goods or the value of a work ethic,
but their perception of the way these values are distorted under neoliberalism. They are
also aware the odds of them benefiting from materialism are not only stacked against them,
but also come at the price of connection to family and culture (Habibis et al 2016).
The respondents' liminality facilitates a clear view of the alienation inherent to
contemporary modernity and they decry its impact on human flourishing. They describe a
nation where consumption and individualism result in people living - and expecting others to
live - in ways that go ‘against nature’, both human and environmental. The benefits of white
culture come at the cost of denial of your essential humanity (Bottomore and Rubel 1961).
People work so hard they have no time to be themselves. They lose their spontaneity, go
grey in the effort to succeed and lose touch with their real needs. The imperative for self-
promotion creates a self-centred culture where instrumental relationships prevail, leaving
little space for authenticity.
Commodity fetishism also separates people from others, resulting in a loss of empathy and
compassion. In a world where the central leitmotif is 'desire desires desire' (Bauman
1998:83), objects are mistaken for human connection, people become judgemental, and the
world divides into winners and losers. There is little concern to understand or support those
who are struggling. Possessions take priority over people and relationships are sacrificed for
success. People become detached from family and friends, resulting in loneliness and
These two aspects of the narratives align closely with classical concepts of alienation
(Seeman 1959), but the extent to which the third - disconnection from nature - aligns is
debatable, as Marx's views on nature are contested (see, for example, Burkett 2014 and Vogel
1998). However, this research adds to the small body of research, mostly done in remote,
rather than urban contexts, on the concerns of Aboriginal peoples in Australia about
environmental degradation (Peterham and Stacey 2015). Their objections to White
expropriation of Aboriginal lands for urban development and resource extraction parallel
those of other Aboriginal groups elsewhere (Samson and Gigoux 2017). They extend beyond
the disappearance of land that supports traditional cultural practices such as hunting, to a
denouncement of the assault on nature because of its threat to humanity's survival. There is
particular distress at the existential threat this presents to Aboriginal peoples' status as
custodians of the land.
This critique of individualism and materialism undermines the demands and expectation
of the neoliberal state (Howard-Wagner, Bargh and Altamirano-Jimenez 2018). Respondents
continually contrast the loss of connection that characterises White culture with their
culturally embedded existence. This assertion of their distinct identity represents the
'ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups' (Scott 1985:xvi) negotiating circumstances
not of their choosing. But their alterity extends beyond this to a vision in which the ills of
White culture could benefit from Aboriginal values of mutual support and connection to
country. What the respondents seek is not to become more White but for the relationship to
be rebalanced and recalibrated towards a more truthful accounting of the merits on both
In calling out to the non-Aboriginal population to consider some of the psychological and
social problems caused by neoliberalism the research supports the claims of scholars about
the potentially radical perspective of subaltern populations (bell hooks 1990; Moreton-
Robinson 2007). As Gramsci observes in his discussion of hegemony:
In acquiring one's conception of the world one always belongs to a particular grouping
which is that of all the social elements which share the same mode of thinking and acting.
We are all conformists of some conformism or other. ...The starting point of critical
elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is `knowing thyself’ as a product
of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without
leaving an inventory. Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory
Gramsci points to the fragmented nature of consciousness and argues for the significance
of exposing counter-hegemonic narratives as a way of fracturing dominant discourses. The
respondents' accounts show that, more than most people in Australia, they do, indeed, know
themselves. Despite the disruptions of colonisation and the fracturing of Aboriginal identity
(Carlson 2017) they are clear-sighted about the distinction between their lifeworlds and that
of the dominant culture. And their capacity to pierce dominant narratives of aspirationalism
and neoliberal definitions of freedom, results in a demand for their truths to be heard so that
the White population might challenge its own conformity.
The findings disrupt narratives of White culture as ineffably and indelibly superior by
pointing to the way we are all diminished by the demands of neoliberalism. They extend the
work of other scholars who reveal the extent of White indifference to hardship and pain
within ethnic minorities (Paradies 2016) by pointing to the loss of empathy and compassion
within White social relations. They provide a further dimension to contemporary critiques
of neoliberalism, such as the epidemiological analyses by Wilkinson and Pickett on the impact
on inequality on the incidence of anxiety, depression and stress (2018), and emerging
research on the 'epidemic' of loneliness now affecting First World nations including Australia
(Holt-Lunstad, Robles and Sbarra 2017, Lim 2018). They support qualitative accounts by
scholars such as Cvetkovitch (2012) and Berlant (2011) who are developing new terminology
to describe the sociological factors implicated in increasing levels of depression and anxiety
within contemporary Western nations. The findings offer a further standpoint on these
issues, highlighting the irrationalities and contradictions at the heart of neoliberal
These accounts also rupture the deficit discourse that dominates perceptions of who First
Nations peoples are. They demand a reappraisal of the prevailing negative stereotypes, and
declare the potential for Aboriginal culture to inform current debates of alternative forms of
relationality that place people before things. Historically, negative stereotypes of Aboriginal
people in Australia have been used to justify acts of injustice and inhumanity while avoiding
any challenge to the dominant group’s self-perception as morally superior (Moreton-
Robinson 2004, 76; Habibis 2013). This has left a legacy of Aboriginal distrust of governments
(Altman and Hinkson 2007), and cynicism about the prospects for reconciliation (Maddison,
Clark and de Costa 2015). This analysis helps shift this dynamic by building a different
approach that invites White Australians to adjust their attention from what Aboriginal people
must do to be deserving of inclusion, to questions of their own assumed superiority and a re-
evaluation of their own moral worth. At a time of political, social and environmental crisis it
provides a further dimension to arguments that contemporary democracies need to pay
greater attention to Indigenous knowledge (Pascoe 2014).
This analysis presents a largely negative picture of Aboriginal perspectives on White
culture, and while this reflects the predominant perspective of the respondents it is not the
full picture. Despite acknowledging the cultural differences, almost all respondents were
keen to present a balanced view of the relationship and were committed to improving it.
Their goal was to build understanding and dialogue, not heighten divisions. It is also
important to note that their accounts of Aboriginal values are neither idealised nor
romanticised. The point of comparison is not some imagined utopian past but lived
experience and often includes acknowledgement of negative aspects of Aboriginal culture.
But overall, these accounts reveal a pride in Aboriginal culture and strong opposition to the
more destructive aspects of White values and behaviours.
At one level this account reflects well-established truths about differences between
Aboriginal and White values. Respondents constantly compare their collective values of
mutual reciprocity, and connection to kin and country with the individualistic and materialist
values of mainstream Australia. But the point of this paper is not a comparative analysis of
values but to give voice to the respondents' perceptions that it is not only Aboriginal people
who suffer the consequences of White hegemony. Despite their different structural position,
both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples are subject to the ills of modernity, albeit with
vastly different consequences. As one respondent put it, White people are rich in wealth, but
poor in social connection, while Aboriginal people are poor in wealth, but rich in connection.
In this way, the findings speak to both sides of the reconciliation equation. Reed observes
that Gramsci 'recognises that counter-hegemonic resistance necessarily involves struggling
over the hearts and minds of people, their attitudes, beliefs, and emotions about the world'
(Reed, 2012). In disrupting narratives of White culture as ineffably and indelibly superior
they help to achieve this by pointing to the way everyone is diminished by cultural imperatives
that weaken the connection and empathy essential for human wellbeing. They provide a
further dimension to contemporary critiques of modernity. By uncovering the extent to
which these concerns are shared by both Aboriginal and White people, these accounts help
to reduce binary constructions of the relationship.
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In using the term 'White' we acknowledge the problematic nature of an uncritical use of the race binary
which this can imply. Not only does it perpetuate a harmful colonial construct, but the groups to which it
supposedly applies are neither clearly distinct, nor internally homogenous. However, while race may not be
real, racism is. Despite their limitations, terms such as White culture and White Australian are useful for
their historical and political connotations. They help keep in view socially constructed divisions and their
consequences, without admitting an underlying biological reality. The term was used to communicate with
participants, who were also invited to use their preferred term in the research interaction.
The survey design and collection was led by one of the ARC grant's Chief Investigators, Prof Maggie
Walter of the University of Tasmania.
This was evident in the response of some White people to our use of a community Facebook page as a
source of data collection from Aboriginal people. The site received significant negative comment from
them because they objected to their exclusion from participation in the site.
'Balanda' is the Yolgnu term for White people used by many Aboriginal people in parts of northern
Centrelink is the government provider of income support.